Battle Of The Vegetarian Proteins

This post comes from our contributor FP Naomi.

This week’s “Battle of the” is near and dear to my heart. I first became a vegetarian five years ago, and at first everyone’s number one question was, “but how are you going to get your protein?”

The truth is that there are many vegetarian protein options out there, you just have to familiarize yourself and get to experimenting in the kitchen. The recommended daily allowance for protein is 46 grams for adult women and 56 for men. It’s more than possible to get that daily allotment from foods such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, quinoa, and beans. Even spinach and nuts contain small amounts of protein!

The trick when being a vegetarian is to consume a variety of proteins as most plant-based sources are what they call, “incomplete.” A complete protein contains all nine of the amino acids that our human bodies cannot synthesize on their own, and they are found in animal based products. For vegetarians to get all of the amino acids needed, we have to consume a variety of protein sources.

Another key is to not consume over-processed manufactured foods that mimic the look and taste of meat. Remain healthy by eating whole foods. Search for protein sources that are derived from the earth.

Today, I’m going to go through some of the best options on the market. I’ve left out options like eggs in order to give you a roundup of truly plant-based proteins.

battle of the vegetarian proteins


What is it? Tofu is made from soybeans that are ground up to a milk-like substance. Acid-based or mineral salt coagulants are then added to separate the curds and whey.  The curds are compressed into a mold that becomes the tofu block we are all familiar with.

How much protein and what other nutrients does it provide? Half a cup of tofu contains ten grams of protein, only 94 calories, and a good dose of calcium, vitamin E, iron, and isoflavones (antioxidants).

Pros: Tofu is proven to lower cholesterol and alleviate menopause symptoms, and is also thought to combat aging and cancer.

Con: Soy beans are one of the biggest crops in the world, and are often not grown organically. Keep your eye out for organic non GMO tofu, and try to purchase that.

How do you buy it? Tofu usually comes in three styles: silken, firm, and extra firm. The kind you’ll use most is firm or extra firm. Silken tofu has more of a custard-like texture and is not used for sautéing, baking, or frying.

Suggested Uses: Tofu is a clean slate and tastes great marinated before you do anything with it. Try making a tofu sandwich or dicing it up and throwing it into a rice dish. With silken tofu, you can blend it with seasonings to make dips – even pie fillings. There’s also something I like about throwing silken tofu into miso soup.

Tip: To store unused tofu, put it in a container filled with cold water, and change the water daily. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to seven days.

battle of the vegetarian proteins


What is it? Quinoa comes from the quinoa plant. Many people think that it is a grain, but quinoa is actually a seed and the plant is connected is to the spinach, beetroot, and tumble weed family.

How much protein and what other nutrients does it provide? Half a cup of cooked quinoa contains about 4 grams of protein. Quinoa is also a good source of iron, magnesium, vitamin E, potassium, and fiber. It’s a great food for heart health and will diminish your risk of stroke. Many consider it a superfood.

Pros: Quinoa is the one plant-based protein that is complete! It also cooks very quickly and is easily enjoyed on a busy night.

Con: Most people cannot find “local” quinoa. The grain is generally imported from South America where it originates.

How do you buy it? You can find tri-color, red, black, and white quinoa. Whichever you buy is really up to you!

Suggested Uses: Substitute quinoa in any recipe that calls for rice or try making quinoa burgers. It also tastes great as a sweet morning cereal.

battle of the vegetarian proteins


What is it? Beans are seeds. They come from plants in the Fabaceae or Luguminosae family.

How much protein and what other nutrients does it provide? The amount of protein changes from bean to bean, but will generally range between 15-22 grams of protein in a one cup serving. Beans are also great because they are low in fat and high in fiber. They will make you feel full and satisfied.

Pros: Beans tend to be the most cost-effective vegetarian protein, and they are damn good for you!

Con: Beans can be difficult to digest and have gaseous after effects for many people. This is because the human digestive enzymes can’t break down the high amount of fiber and short chain sugar molecules, and so they are often digested by bacteria in the gut.

How do you buy it? You can buy beans canned or dry. The benefit to buying canned is that you’ll be able to eat the beans right away, but they are also not as fresh and contain preservatives. Dry beans take longer to cook, and are generally better for you.

Suggested Uses: Chili, bean dip, crock pot, bean burgers, you name it!

Tip: There are a couple things you can try to avoid the gaseous effects of beans. First, soak dry beans for longer (24 hours), chew more to let your saliva break down the sugars, start with small portions and gradually build up over time, and stick to lower gas beans such as mung, adzuki, black-eyed, and split peas.

battle of the vegetarian proteins


What is it? Seitan is essentially vital wheat gluten mixed with herbs and seasonings. You ask, “What is vital wheat gluten?” The answer is that it’s made by hydrating the grain, rinsing away the starch, and then drying and grinding the remaining gluten back into a powder. Gluten happens to be the protein found in wheat, and since it’s all that’s left after hydrating and rinsing the grain, you’re consuming a protein rich food. This all sounds very processed, but the truth is that you can extract wheat gluten at home with your own two hands. No chemicals are needed.

How much protein and what other nutrients does it provide? Seitan contains about 20 grams of protein in each three ounce portion. That is roughly the equivalent to three ounces of lean ground beef. It is also low in fat and contains only 1.5 grams in a three ounce portion.

Pros: Seitan is the vegetarian protein that most closely mimics meat. Depending on how it’s seasoned, it can be made to replicate steak, chicken, pork, or sausage.

Con: You cannot eat seitan if you are a celiac or have a wheat or gluten sensitivity/allergy.

How do you buy it? You can find seitan in almost any form – strips, crumbles, balls – but the most common is strips. You can also find it seasoned in all manners. Pick your favorite or try seasoning it all on your own.

Suggested Uses: Try seitan in chili, throw it on tacos, or a personal favorite – Spicy Thai Seitan Salad!

battle of the vegetarian proteins


What is it? Tempeh originated in Indonesia and is made from cooked, slightly fermented soy beans that are often combined with grains, spices, and herbs. It has a firm texture.

How much protein and what other nutrients does it provide? A half cup of tempeh contains about 15.5 grams of protein. It possesses all of the same health benefits as tofu, but it is also very good for your gut since it is fermented. The culture produced by fermentation promotes healthy probiotics in the digestive system.

Pros: Tempeh is a clean slate, and can take on pretty much any flavor.

Con: Tempeh doesn’t taste like much just on its own.

How do you buy it? Tempeh is usually sold in thin blocks. You can slice it, cube it, or grind it up as you’d like to.

Suggested Uses: Use it as a replacement in a BLT, or fry it as strips to dip in sauce.

What vegetarian proteins do you love? Please leave any questions in the comments!

Check out Naomi’s blog Numie Abbot!

For some great vegetarian recipes check out our restricted diet series.

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10 years ago

Thanks Naomi!!

Meghan Graham
10 years ago

“The truth is that there are many vegetarian protein options out there..”

The truth is we really don’t that need much protein and people who eat meat every day usually over consume.

My favourite is chickpeas! In a curry, on top of a salad or pureed in hummus. Yum!!

10 years ago

Yum! These are all delicious! I’m so glad someone is saying how abundant vegan/veggie proteins are out there. But, I still do agree with Meghan Graham that we don’t need as much as most people believe. Still, my favorite choice of these in this blog post would have to be Tempeh! They texture and flavor is just delicious! But I do love some well marinated Tofu as well :)
~Joyful Vegan~

marissa l
10 years ago

i love this! as a mostly-vegetarian who usually doesn’t get enough protein, this is a great resource. thanks for posting! xx

10 years ago

i have been replacing croutons in my salad with a big scoop of quinoa. i love me some bread/carbs, but this is a much healthier option and tastes great! xx

10 years ago

The reason 90% of soy crops are GMO is because 90% are sprayed with the herbicide Glyphosate. Soybean oil is also bad because of the Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which lead to inflammation. There is also evidence that soy causes thyroid problems. Tempeh is a much better option, because a lot of these issues are eliminated due to the fermentation process.

Other good healthy options are green peas, hemp seeds, and nuts!

10 years ago

This is such a great post! I’m not a veg, but my boyfriend is and because of that I’ve been eating much less meat and have been wanting to come up with things to cook that both of us can eat for dinner! I never really had any ideas, however, but this really helps. Thank you!


10 years ago

This post is reminding me that I don’t eat enough protein and mostly get lazy and eat tofu…
you missed one of my personal favorites- red lentils. Fast and cheap and it’s fun to get good at making dal or misir wot.
Great post!

10 years ago

my favorite is tofu! it used to be tempah but i find tofu holds marinades a lot better

10 years ago

Yes! I want to remind ladies on vegan diets that there are essential amino acids (protein) that are not found solely in plant foods, and that the body cannot manufacture on its own (hence, that is why they’re called essential). Quinoa is a great example of a plant food that is a complete protein, and I encourage any vegans here to look into pairing foods, such as beans and rice, to get your complete supply of amino acids.
Also, I haven’t had much luck in the past with tofu, mainly because I don’t think I can extract as much water as I need to out of the tofu with just towels and pressing. Any advice?

10 years ago

Jessica, I think the trick to tofu is getting a nice sear on the outside. As long as you have a caramelized skin, the inside doesn’t need to be super dry. If you’re baking your tofu, you may even want to give it a quick saute on both sides before or after putting it into the oven. While you’re drying it, you can also set something heavy on top (20 mins or so) to squeeze out excess water.
Hope that helps!

10 years ago

I appreciate that you mentioned SOME background information about quinoa- and the struggle to find local quinoa- but unfortunately you didn’t mention the drastic effects that quinoa popularity has had on cultures that have relied on it for centuries. Maybe take a second to read this HuffPost article:

It goes into detail about the plight of the cultures who can no longer afford to consume the food that their cultures have survived on for centuries. ONLY buy local quinoa, people.

10 years ago

About the soy bean agriculture being bad..
Most meat producers feed their cows and pigs with corn or soy bean, and the pig/cow sure eats more soy beans than you during its life, for you to get you proteins! Here in Sweden, most cows’ food is produced from soy bean from Brazil, which are both transported quite a bit and also mostly GMO and bad for the diversity/nature/farmers/workers etc. etc. sooo, do not blame the vegetarians for the soy bean industry!!! 90% of all energy is lost every time anything eats something else, so the cow need s to eat ten times more of the soy beans for you to get equal amount of energy out of that meat!

10 years ago

I tend to choose tofu as my easy way out with protein … so this is very helpful!!


10 years ago

Never knew that about quinoa — I totally thought it was a grain. Great information here and lovely photos! Thanks so much for all the advice!!

10 years ago

My favorite is making fried “rice” with quinoa and using coconut oil. Super good comfort food! Also, some veggies, like kale, have protein which can be good in juice and smoothies.

9 years ago

Thanks Naomi!

9 years ago

Love this! When I’m on a vegetarian kick, tofu is my go-to. I’ve learned to like silken tofu the most, as is is perfect for spicy korean tofu soups and stews, and can also be blended up in my nutribullet smoothies :)

<3 dani

9 years ago

i am also trying to be a vegetarian,,thanks for your nice sharing.

9 years ago

Yum! I love fried rice with sautéed tofu, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms! I’ve also made buffalo tofu when I want something kind of fun. And tofu or tempeh BLTs with veganaise or homemade mayo are delicious!